Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

Are Lobbyists Unethical?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

Are lobbyists unethical?  Email 100 words or less to  The best response will be posted.

FOR MOST AMERICANS, the answer to the above question is too securely in the affirmative to merit a response. It can best be classified as a rhetorical substitute for “yes,” much like “is the sky blue?” E.g.: “Is Washington broken?” “Um, are lobbyists unethical?”

It may be the case that many lobbyists are unethical, but to no greater extent than many school teachers or doctors are. These last are part of noble professions that contain some ignoble people. If lobbyists were incorrigibly unethical, there would have to be something incorrigibly unethical about lobbying.

But if the object of the question is the business of lobbying, and not the lobbyists themselves (if it is best read “is lobbying unethical?”), then all logic errs on the side of the negative. The activity of lobbying is ethically neutral: it can go in the direction of big tobacco or bone cancer research.  Assessed through the lens of the Constitution, lobbying attains a positive ethical charge.  The common thread that unites all lobbyists is their exercise of the freedom of speech and to petition, both couched in the First Amendment.

The assumption (dare I say conviction) that lobbyists are unethical is also fueled by a very unhistorical sentiment: nostalgia (or as the late sociologist Robert Nisbet called it, “the rust of memory.”) In the words of  Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig:

The ordinary lobbyist today is a Boy Scout compared with the criminal of the nineteenth century. The lobbyist today is ethical, and well educated. He or she works extremely hard to live within the letter of the law. More than ever before, most lobbyists are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a field and able to advise and guide Congress well. Regulation is complex; regulators understand very little; the lobbyist is the essential link between what the regulator wants to do and how it can get done…. Most of it is decent, aboveboard, the sort of stuff we would hope happens inside the Beltway.  (Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It)

To Lessig, lobbyists are not only not unethical, they’re admirable. Paradoxically, they’re the model of what most people think they corrupt.

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Election Day Edition

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010 by Vbhotla

There has been lots of talk recently about lobbyists’ campaign contributions to state-level candidates.  For example, the backlash one Tennessee lobbyist received after donating to a gubernatorial candidate’s campaign and the interest in the amount of money donated by PACs to Alabama governor-hopefuls.  Rules on contributions by lobbyists to these campaigns vary from state to state.

The good news is, thanks to guidelines on LD-203 disclosure released June 2009 by the House Office of the Clerk and Secretary of the Senate, these state and local-level campaign contributions do not trigger disclosure on a lobbyist’s LD-203 form. Because these candidates do not register campaign donations with the FEC, any amount a lobbyist contributes to said campaigns is exempt from LD-203 disclosure.

Other exceptions to LD-203 reporting requirements include:

  • Donations to an entity on which a covered legislative or executive branch official serves as an honorary board member with no vote in board affairs,
  • Contributions to a charity established by a covered official prior to his/her term in the covered office,
  • Contributions to a charity to which a covered official makes only “de minimus” donations, and
  • Costs related to sponsorship of a multi-candidate debate.

Though campaign contributions by lobbyists can be virtually unregulated in some states like Texas, it is still advised that lobbyists tread lightly when working on behalf of candidates at the state and local levels.  Candidates are increasingly under fire for accepting special interest money, making them reluctant to be associated with government relations personnel.

“Nobody wants the Brooks Brothers Brigade out there campaigning for you,” Democratic lobbyist John Michael Gonzalez told a Roll Call staffer.

Today’s ethics tip is condensed from the Lobbying Compliance Handbook. New 2010 edition out this month!

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Cigar Aficionado Edition

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010 by Vbhotla

Cigars: Unethical?

Reports about the “Congressional Cigar Association,” an organization that reportedly includes both Congressional staffers and former staffers who are now lobbyists, with cigars donated to the group by lobbying entities, draws questions about whether or not the group should be accepting, or allowed to accept, such gifts under the House gift rules.

The Huffington Post reported on a meeting of the CCA recently and called the group a “front” for lobbyists.

Is the CCA, its membership, or groups sponsoring the events  stepping over the line?  Let’s look first at gift rules, and second at social engagements.

1. Gift rules: No lobbyist or lobbying entity may provide any thing of value (including small items, such as cigars), without a specific exemption. If the groups sponsoring the events are registered to lobby, they may not provide anything of value to Congressional staffers unless such gifts fall under an exemption. According to the CCA, they have cleared their events with the ethics committee. See here for definition of “lobbyist.”

2. Social engagements. If lobbying entities are sponsoring these events,  under the exemption of a “widely-attended event,” they must fall under a category of a widely-attended event. At such an event, Congressional staffers or members may accept entertainment, offered to all guests, presumably including the entertainment of smoking a cigar. However, premium “entertainment” is not necessarily covered.)

A widely-attended event is defined as: “One of the exceptions to the Gift Rules of the House and Senate. Organizations employing lobbyists may sponsor a widely attended event  which must contain a diverse audience of more than 25 people and must be related to a Member’s or staffer’s official duties in order for a Member or staffer to attend for free.”

It is impossible to make a judgment on the appropriateness or legality of the CCA’s events and sponsorship without knowing more information on the fees and dues provided by members to the organization, the structure of their events, and the sponsoring entities.

That being said, it doesn’t look extremely good to hold such closed-door events as the one “crashed” by the Huffington Post. It creates an appearance (even if that wasn’t the intent) of access to staffers being bought by cigars. A better method of advocacy for the groups sponsoring such events might be to bring in citizen advocates to lobby their members of Congress on behalf of district-based efforts.

(And since we suggested that, here’s a plug for our upcoming audioconference: Lobby Days & Fly-Ins: Time and Money-Saving Tactics for Managing the Unmanagable,” with the outstanding Stephanie Vance.)

Free Ethics White Paper

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 by Vbhotla

We’re pleased to announce that we have a new white paper posted on This paper is a handy-dandy collection of ethics tips from Lobby Blog – reworked into a printable, savable format.

Topics that we cover:

  • So You’re a Lobbyist… What Next?
  • Registering to Lobby as a Non-Profit
  • How to (Correctly) File Your LD-203
  • How to Report Lobbying the Executive Branch
  • What Defines a Meal on the Hill?
  • Giving A Gift: What Won’t Land You in Jail?
  • Drinks at the Bar: A Quick and Dirty Guide
  • Taking a Member or Staffer to a Ticketed Event

Simply enter your email address and print your PDF here.

Find more white papers and free resources here on

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Home Entertainment Edition

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010 by Vbhotla

So you’re a lobbyist, you just moved to your brand-new Capitol Hill rowhouse, and you want to invite friends – including Members and staffers – over for a house-warming party. Who can you invite? Do you have to get it approved by the ethics committee? What should you serve?

We can’t help you with the menu in this case (although take a look at our Meal Definition Edition ethics tip for tips on what constitutes a “meal”). But here’s does and don’ts for entertaining people at your home.

A lobbyist may entertain a Member or staffer in his/her home if that person is a personal friend of the lobbyist and the situation meets the test for the personal friendship exceptions. This means that the personal hospitality being offered under the personal frienship exception is reciprocal in that the Member or staffer similarly provides meals and personal hospitality to the lobbyist.

A lobbyist is not permitted to offer his / her home as an entertainment venue to a Member or staffer, nor to issue an invitation to visit or use a lobbyist’s beach house or mountain condo, even if those are owned by the lobbyist personally. The exception for personal hospitality does not extend to individuals who are lobbyists. Inviting Members or staffers to your home must fall under the personal friendship exception, meaning that all the factors of personal friendship must be in place for the exception to be appropriate.

Again – the key word is “reciprocal.” There must be a history of gift-giving or reciprocal dinner invitations, at the same level of giving.

The information in this post is from the Lobbying Compliance Handbook, a comprehensive guide to ethics, LDA filing, and life as a federal lobbyist. New edition coming soon! Details on the Lobbying Compliance Handbook are available here.

Weekly Lobbying News Round-Up

Friday, July 2nd, 2010 by Vbhotla

Eric Brown tips us off to an LDA amendment: originally the bill sought to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act, but now amends the Lobbying Disclosure Act to “prohibit any registered lobbyist whose clients include foreign governments which are found to be sponsors of international terrorism or include other foreign nationals from making contributions and other campaign-related disbursements in elections for public office”; bill text is now available from the GPO here (H.R. 5609).

Big acquisition by Patton Boggs reported: Breaux Lott Leadership Group will now be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Patton Boggs; former Senators John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and their small but “effective” boutique lobbying firm will join the large team at Patton Boggs, starting immediately. Bonus (because it’s Friday): did you know Trent Lott’s given name is Chester Trent Lott? His son (also a member of the lobbying group) bears the same name. Now you know. Read about the “strategic coup” at the Blog of Legal Times.

Time profiles Lobbyists and their Return on Investment, in a series of short lobbyist/issue/payoff profiles.

Ex-Rep. John Campbell was taken down by the Jack Abramoff affair; Roll Call profiles Campbell’s life since 2005.

House Ethics Clears Rep. Richardson. The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct released its report in the matter of Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) and cleared her of any wrongdoing in the mortgage matter. (link is a PDF)

Two great compliance / political law resources to take to the beach with you  over your long holiday weekend:

Quote of the week:

“The irony of it is that every time the president says we lobbyists have all this influence, people who don’t have a lobbyist want one… He exaggerates our power, but he increases demand for our services.” – Tony Podesta, Podesta Group, NYTimes article on the “Superlobbyist,” July 1.

Happy 4th of July Holiday Weekend from all of us at Lobby Blog!

Erring on the Side of Accuracy

Thursday, June 17th, 2010 by Vbhotla

I sat down for a chat with lobbying law expert Cleta Mitchell a few weeks ago. We were discussing, among other things, the upcoming 2010 Edition of the Lobbying Compliance Handbook.

One of the most interesting things Cleta mentioned was that there is too much emphasis recently on the side of disclosure simply for the sake of disclosure. “People talk about erring on the side of caution, but really, instead of erring on the side of disclosure, they should err on the side of accuracy.”

Cleta has a passion for accurate, thorough information. She’s right – it is foolish to overdisclose and illegal to underdisclose. The solution to that problem is to completely and accurately follow what the law requires – which (among other things) is: full disclosure of lobbying clients, the issues upon which you’re lobbying (be thorough!) and amount of money that you’re earning to speak on behalf of your clients.

Why not take a moment to brush up on what the law requires? The payoff is knowing that you’re completely in line with the law. There is plenty of room within this model for good-government groups and ethics watchdogs (and lobbyists themselves, of course) to suggest improvements and changes in the information that is disclosed. That’s a good thing – a citizen-governed nation requires a lot of oversight and maintenance. But don’t assume that disclosure for disclosure’s sake is necessarily a good thing.  As a lobbyist, you should already be maintaining a high regard for the facts – and a commitment to passing them along truthfully.

Updated LDA Guidance Available

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010 by Vbhotla

The House of the Clerk released their latest LDA Guidance yesterday.

There were a couple of changes, which were highlighted in Section 2 of the Guidance.

  • Section 6 – reminder that filers must list a new lobbyist’s previous covered executive or legislative branch positions (held within 20 years of their date of filing). NEW: once the registrant has listed an applicable lobbyist’s covered positions, the registrant does not have to list them again on filings for the same client. However, when listing the lobbyist on a new registration for a different client, the positions must be listed again.
  • Section 7: Stresses that both registrants (the firm or sole proprietor listing lobbying income) AND the individual lobbyist listed on the quarterly LD-2 reports must file the LD-203. Although ONLY the registrant must file the LD-1/LD-2, both must file the LD-203 (Semi-annual reporting of defined political contributions). This is regardless of whether or not the individual lobbyist makes a contribution. He or she must still file an LD-203 report, stating “no contributions” and certifying his or her compliance with the House and Senate gift rules. This is not a change, but a reminder from the Clerk.

Read the PDF of the new guidance here.

Check out our Lobbying Compliance Handbook for practical compliance tips.

Lobbying Compliance Handbook adds new campaign finance chapter

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 by Brittany
This practical and easy-to-use guide provides authoritative answers to all your questions about lobbying under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 as amended by HLOGA.  Reserve your copy today!

The Lobbying Compliance Handbook covers everything from the lobbying activities that require disclosure to the specific steps government relations professionals, lobbying firms, associations and government contractors must take to maintain the required records and paperwork certifications.

The 2010 edition will be released this July. Click here to reserve or renew your copy.

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Love in the Age of HLOGA Edition

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010 by Vbhotla
So, Mr. (or Ms.) Lobbyist – have your eye on that cute legislative assistant over at the Senate or staff general counsel (hottie on the House side), but concerned that taking him or her out might violate the ethics rules? We aim to be your one-stop-shop on dating advice… or at least dating ethics advice.
According to the Lobbying Compliance Handbook,  for lobbyists, “There is no general exception in the [gift and travel] rules for ‘dates.’ The rules and the exceptions must be applied to the stages of dating:”
  • Getting acquainted dates
  • Personal friends
  • Significant others
  • Fiancé or fiancée
  • Married
There are exceptions under the gift rules that allow for gifts and entertaining for the advanced stages of dating. But for first dates, blind dates and the beginning stages of any dating relationship, the rule is simply Dutch treat, period.

Dating Etiquette under HLOGA

Stages of Dating



First dates, blind dates, initial stages of dating

Dutch treat

Dutch treat

Personal friends

  • Evidence of reciprocal gift-giving
  • No reimbursement
  • Not related to official duties or actions
  • Evidence of reciprocal gift-giving
  • No reimbursement
  • Not related to official duties or actions

Significant Others

Personal friendship rule applies; no specific exception

Senate Ethics Committee has granted a waiver which generally permits a Member / staffer to accept gifts from an individual with whom s/he enjoys a significant, personal, dating relationship.

Fiancé or fiancée

Considered a gift from a relative and exempt but a letter to House Ethics upon receipt of an engagement ring valued at $250 or more is required to avoid disclosure of the ring as a gift

Considered a gift from a relative and exempt but a letter to Senate Ethics upon receipt of an engagement ring valued at $250 or more is required to avoid disclosure of the ring as a gift


Gifts from spouses are exempt

Gifts from spouses are exempt

While the Senate has recognized and codified the permissibility of gifts from significant others short of a formal engagement, the House has not done likewise. Essentially, the personal friendship exception will apply in both instances, but it is important to note that there are always factors that must be present in order for either exception to apply.
You may ask, “at what point does the ‘personal friendship’ exception kick-in between people who are dating?”

And the answer is…who knows? Just be prepared to answer that question under penalty of perjury if anyone with a badge ever asks. So now, it’s not enough that your significant other wants you to define the relationship. The ethics office does too.
Again, the determining factor of whether or not a gift is permissible is not the venue or the event, it is the food.

Abramoff Released From Prison

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 by Vbhotla

Jack Abramoff, whose spectacular fall from grace has been well documented, was sent from his Maryland prison to a halfway house in Baltimore, according to Politico. Abramoff is scheduled to be released on December 4. His term, which started in 2008, was for 18 months.

According to CNN, Abramoff views himself as a “broken man”:

“I’ve fallen into an abyss,” he said. “My name is the butt of a joke, the source of a laugh and the title of a scandal … I hope this horrible nightmare ends at some point.”

Abramoff back in the news serves as a reminder of the importance of compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. Lobbyists serve the interests that they are hired to serve – and that is not a bad thing. But stepping over the line by offering bribes and kick-back schemes is not only illegal, unethical, and wrong, but damaging to reputation (yours, your firm’s, and your clients’).

As I attend all of the LCP sessions put on by the American League of Lobbyists, a theme that is drilled into every session – whether it’s Online Advocacy or Budget & Appropriations – is the vital importance of reputation and compliance with ethics rules. It’s a well-rehearsed cliche that DC is a small town, but it’s true. All you have is your reputation – and if you lose that, you’re toast.

Tell the truth – to clients and to lawmakers and staffers. Don’t sugarcoat the level of opposition that measures you’re lobbying on will elicit. Don’t manufacture support where it doesn’t exist. Under-promise and over-perform. Follow the law. Check your compliance measures. And it never hurts to take a step back and reevaluate your clients, your lobbying practice, and why you do what you do.

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Meal Definition Edition

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 by Vbhotla

The House and Senate Ethics Rules are very strict regarding providing food and meals (notice they are two different things) to Members and Staffers. Lobbyists and lobbying organizations must be especially careful that they stay within the rules – because they are not allowed to give “any thing of value” to a Member or staffer, provision of food or a meal must fall within one of several exceptions.

The Ethics rules recognize certain food as a meal, regardless of its cost. Even low-cost meals such as pizza, hot dogs, or sandwiches are counted as meals.

Meals at a Glance As Defined by Ethics Rules

Meal Menu Is a Meal Menu NOT a Meal
Breakfast Full breakfast: eggs, bacon, etc. Continental breakfast: Bagels, muffins, doughnuts, juice, coffee, tea
Lunch Sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza, soups, luncheon entrees, salads, hamburgers Light appetizers – not as part of a meal
Dinner Sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza, soups, dinner entrees, salads, hamburgers; carving stations, pasta stations Light appetizers, no heavy hors d’oeuvres offered as a substitute for a meal

If you are a lobbyist or your organization employs or retains a lobbyist, in order to offer and pay for a Member or staffer’s meal under the menu descriptions above, it must fall within one of the exceptions listed below for it to be legally offered to a Member/staffer.

There are specific circumstances where a lobbyist or lobbying entity is allowed to pay for a meal of a Member/staffer in the House and Senate and one additional type of meal which applies only to Senators and Senate staff. The meal exceptions include meals served at, by or involving:

  • A charitable event
  • A widely attended event
  • A constituent event in Washington, D.C. (applies to House and Senate)
  • A Senate “constituent event” – held in home state of senator
  • An educational event
  • Training in the interest of the House and/or Senate
  • Circumstances involving personal friendship
  • Circumstances in which the meal is received/offered in his/her role other than as congressional Member or employee
  • A meal incident to a site visit
  • A federal, state, or local government entity
  • A foreign government
  • A relative
  • A political fundraising event
  • An awards ceremony or occasion where a Member/staffer is being honored

For each exception noted above, there are several factors that must ALL be present in order for the exception to apply. Seek guidance when planning a meal or event where food may be served and Members or staffers invited. Check out our Cinco de Mayo Post for guidance on offering drinks.

This post is condensed from the Lobbying Compliance Handbook.

New travel rules for the House

Monday, May 24th, 2010 by Vbhotla
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tightened up travel requirements for House members and staffers last week, after reports surfaced of some Representatives enjoying perks on taxpayer funded delegation travel.

The House has had rules governing travel in place since the 1970s, but the Wall Street Journal recently reported that some Representatives had enjoyed extensive perks on the taxpayer dime while traveling overseas, including purchasing alcohol, gifts, and items for family members, or pocketing leftover per diems.

The main changes to the rules include a provision forbidding lawmakers on official travel from flying business class on trips shorter than 14 hours, and requiring them to return any unused travel funds to the Treasury. Members and staffers travelling on official business are also prohibited from using funds for personal reasons. Certain aides are also now prohibited from accompanying members on overseas junkets. Attempts at making Congressional delegations bipartisan are also now required to be documented.

Members’ official travel (using government funds) is restricted to committee delegations. However, Members are also able to travel on private trips with approval; such trips fall under a strict, highly regulated approval and guidance structure. Speaker Pelosi has the authority to make changes to the travel rules unilaterally.

The rules from Speaker Pelosi can be found here, and Roll Call’s coverage of the new rules is here.

(This post from our free bi-weekly Government Relations Alert. Sign up to receive your copy here!)

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Registering as a Lobbyist

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 by Vbhotla

HLOGA is a complex law and can be tough to fully understand. So it’s back to basics with today’s Ethics Tip: registering as a lobbyist.

Who must register as a lobbyist?

Merely making one contact with a lawmaker does not mean that an individual must register as a lobbyist. There are several triggers that must be met before registration.

To file an LD-1 (registration form), a lobbying organization (including an individual doing business as a lobbyist), must meet certain triggers. Triggers depend on whether the organization retains clients (reports lobbying income on registration forms) or employs its own in-house lobbyists (reports expenditures on registration forms).

If retaining clients, one person (or entity) must

  • Make more than one lobbying contact and
  • Spend more than 20% of time on lobbying activities  and
  • Must receive more than $3,000 in lobbying income in quarter

If employing lobbyists for own issues, one person (or entity) must

  • Make more than one lobbying contact and
  • Spend more than 20% of time on lobbying activities  and
  • Must spend more than $11,500 on lobbying activities in quarter

Registering as a lobbyist:

Once the thresholds are reached by the organization or individual filing, an LD-1 form must be filed at the earliest point, either…

  • Within 45 days of being retained/employed to make lobbying contact
  • Within 45 days of first lobbying contact

What must be filed:

  • Organizations are required to report the issues upon which they are lobbying or being retained to lobby, and the lobbyists expected to be lobbying for the organization / client.
  • Organizations required to file quarterly income and expenditure reports (Form LD-2) .
  • Organizations AND individual lobbyists are required to file semi-annual report of political contributions / other payments (Form LD-203).
  • All lobbyists are subject to compliance with the House and Senate gift and ethics rules, and must certify on their LD-203 form that they have read and understood the ethics rules.

These disclosures are filed with the House Office of the Clerk and the Secretary of the Senate.

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Executive Branch Edition

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010 by Vbhotla

D.C. is abuzz with President Obama’s nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court.  As she is currently a member of the Executive Branch, any attempts to wine or dine her in the days and weeks leading up to the Senate’s confirmation hearings must fall safely under the Executive Branch gift and ethics rules.

So let’s take a look at some of those ethics / gift rules:

General rule: “prohibited sources” (those with business before the particular agency) may not give a gift (or gifts) to agency employees. Executive branch employees may not supplement their income in any way, and are subject to certain limits on de minimis gifts or entertainment.

  • there is a $20 aggregate limit per occasion
  • there is a $50 aggregate limit per year
  • other particular exceptions (e.g. widely attended gatherings, modest items of food and refreshment, opportunities and benefits that are generally available to the public, etc.), may be applied if all the necessary factors are in place (see the Office of Government Ethics for additional, complete information on this topic)

Political appointees within President Obama’s administration are also under an additional Executive Order that restricts gifts they can accept. Political appointees (of which Ms. Kagan is one), may not accept gifts from lobbyists. These political appointees may NOT use certain gift rule exceptions which are in place for other types of executive branch employees (see above, and the OGE’s site). Political appointees may not accept a meal, attendance, or entertainment at a lobbyist-sponsored event.

Political appointees in President Obama’s administration have also signed a pledge not to become lobbyists after their service in government.

The information in this post is condensed from’s Compliance Center. This ethics tip is accurate to the best of our knowledge, but please consult your counsel on specific questions.